By Corrina Antrobus @CorrinaCorrina
In 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr, led 1000s of protestors 54-miles from Selma to Montgomery in support of black citizens’ right to vote – something that was already a constitutional right but was met with institutional hurdles. Director Ava DuVernay’s accomplished new film tells the story of those three long marches in one cinematic journey.
The marches eventuated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act which spelt victory for King and his followers but shame on the heavy hands of the law who wouldn’t back down without a bloodied fight.
Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy has a weight only a courageous director could lift. His prolific career is a folio of stories worthy of individual merit yet Selma drills deep into one tent-poled chapter. And it’s a relief – a heaving biopic of the rise of his political stature adjoined with his muddied domesticated life ran the risk of clumsy mediocrity, but DuVernay’s monomania pays off handsomely.
The references of roots, history and culture are woven in with crafted delicacy. Scenes often take stage before paintings of political innovators, King lounges in his African-print dressing-gown and young girls giddily chatter about how to braid their afro hair. Plus there’s homeliness and heart in the scenes of a big ol’ communal feed-up picking at soul food with ravenous greasy fingers.
King (played by David Oyelowo) is often stylistically slid to one side of the frame as if to emphasise the weight on his shoulders and only during the climax of his final oration is he truly presented as empyreal. This may surprise anyone expecting a 128-min curtsy to a man-cum-martyr. Instead we see a side of King who, despite the do-gooding, still finds his trousers on foreign bedroom floors. Yet this deviant side is respectfully delivered and without sensationalism. An uncomfortable confrontation that could have presented his wife Coretta (the British Carmen Ejogo) as a long-suffering victim, instead reveals a swivelling power shift that confirms that she wears the proverbial pants.
One of Selma’s triumphs is producing a script that echoes MLK’s signature grandeur delivery without using the monologues in full. Due to the rights of his speeches (and life story) being tied up in a separate biopic secured with DreamWorks, Warner Bros and Steven Spielberg, Selma had to skirt around the dialogue to keep it legal yet authentic. Coupled with David Oyelowo’s force of diction, the spirit of MLK is reborn and remastered.
The film humanises MLK showing us that a man who despite rousing a nation with acutely articulate, soul-stirring speeches, can still go home and put his foot in his mouth when it comes to addressing his wife. Oyelowo harnesses both these personalities effortlessly and flicks from domesticated and doubtful, to a galvanising presence of inspirational confidence.
The historical low of America’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ provides the cinematic apex as it meshes the physical battles of the protesters v police, alongside the portrayal of how the media delivers the unfolding news. As blood bursts into the foggy streets, mac-wearing journalists report their heavy-hearted observations from phone boxes as if commentating on the fatalities of a Grand National race gone wrong. It’s this scene that award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young (known for his expertise on lighting dark skin and who also teamed with DuVernay on Middle of Nowhere) really excels.
DuVernay is not showing us the power and complexities of one man, but rather the power of collective movement. Selma beckons us to acknowledge the power of constructive unity when there’s urgency for peace and in these taut times of recurring terrorism and police brutality, the resonance of Selma to contemporary politics is bitterly stark.
This film is important on so many levels right now. It echoes those nursery school lessons that insist an eye for an eye does not settle a score and of all the ways to fight back, the abuse of physical strength is the most puerile. Even as the death count clocked up during the marches, King clung to the force of his faith and the support of his advocates for necessary fuel.
It also reminds us, to strive and persevere – necessary encouragement needed after the statistics of black and female filmmakers revealed this year’s Oscar nominations as the ‘whitest since 1998’. Ava ticks both those minority boxes and her Oscar snub for Best Director nomination was dumbfounding. Her film owns evocative cinematography, masterful structure, potent performances and lampoons a historical story that ricochets into a contemporary context with class in spite of its sometimes over-glossed sentiments.
With odds on Selma winning an Academy Award for Best Picture at 50/1, it’s unlikely DuVernay’s clearing a space on the mantelpiece. Here’s hoping she’s still got some fight left in her for her next march to the movies.
Selma is on general release from February 6th.